Arguably the two best musical theatre composers of the last 30 years are both writers that have become famous for other things: the first, Howard Goodall for his TV theme music and documentary hosting, as well as classical compositions as Classic FM composer-in-residence for whom he also presents weekly radio shows; the other, Adam Guettel for his own musical theatre heritage (as the grandson of Richard Rodgers and son of Mary Rodgers), but to which he has made his own decisive and important contribution.
But seeing a show by the first receive its US premiere in Philadelphia last week, and he other himself appearing in cabaret in London this week, was to be reminded, if one needed to, that there is a life for British musical theatre beyond Andrew Lloyd Webber, or for Broadway beyond Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music.
I first fell in love with Howard Goodall’s music when I saw the original production of The Hired Man that transferred from Southampton and Leicester to the West End’s Astoria Theatre in 1984. I was still a student then in Cambridge, but came down to see it three times during its five-month run. The West End run was produced by none other than Andrew Lloyd Webber, a fantastic endorsement of a young talent who was just 26 when he finished writing it.
With its soaring, choral-based melodies, it provided a sound quite unlike any British musical before it; it felt like a modern folk opera that made it a bit like Britain’s answer to Broadway’s Porgy and Bess. I’ve seen it many, many times in the years since it first premiered, in productions everywhere from off-Broadway to Salisbury Playhouse, a UK regional tour by a small touring company called New Perspectives in 2007, and a stunning production at the fringe Landor last year that I wrote about here at the time (and this weekend I’ll be seeing it yet again, performed by Mountview students under the direction of Paul Clarkson, who won an Olivier Award for playing the male lead in the original production!).
But it has still not had the full success it deserves; I’d love to see a production at the National or the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, where its open-hearted score would soar in the night air.
Two years after the original production of The Hired Man, Goodall’s next show Girlfriends was premiered at Oldham Coliseum, and of course I went, where I fell in love all over again with a truly different, beautiful show. That would later reach the West End’s Playhouse in 1987 in a badly revised and duly ill-fated production that only ran for a few weeks. (I finally saw it again last year in a production at Walthamstow’s Rose and Crown that I reviewed here, and I’m looking forward to seeing done at Mountview, too, later this month).
And that was it for Goodall’s West End career, until 23 years later when Love Story transferred from Chichester to the Duchess in 2010. Not that he was exactly idle in the years inbetween; he’s written some wonderful musicals for youth companies, including The Dreaming and The Kissing Dance (both premiered by the National Youth Music Theatre), as well as musicals premiered regionally like Days of Hope and Two Cities, not to mention all that TV theme and classical composition work.
On his personal website, it says that “classical expertise and a thriving career in TV incidental music help Goodall keep a clear head about the frustrations of producing a stage musical.” And he is quoted saying, “If you’ve had a classical training you’re painfully aware of the immense talent that has preceded you. If ever I do feel pleased with something I’ve written, I force myself to remember the finale of Act II of The Marriage of Figaro. It helps me to see things in perspective.”
Mozart, however, died in poverty, which happily is unlikely to Goodall; and was only 35 when he died, which Goodall, of course, has already exceeded. (I love it that just the other day, Goodall tweeted “Today I have 1791 followers: Mozart’s greatest, final year.” But Goodall’s own sense of perspective has stood him in good stead. As he also says on his website, “Sondheim is a brilliant writer, but I don’t listen to him and think I can’t go on. I have something else to offer. If I tried to write hits like Lloyd Webber or Sondheim I’d fail. You can only write the piece you want to write. Because those two figures dominate the scene, it’s even more important to be yourself.”
Working in commercial theatre, you can’t force an audience to come to your work; it has to find it by itself. I spend a lot of my time searching it out, of course; and last weekend I went on a side trip to Philadelphia to see the US premiere of Goodall’s Love Story at the Walnut Street Theatre. It happens to be America’s oldest producing theatre, now in its 204th season, and has previously produced The Hired Man back in 1990; it may also be America’s musically most adventurous theatre, too!
The show opened officially last night, so now I can report freely on it. And what’s wonderful about seeing Love Story in a subscription house like Walnut Street is that an audience who buys a whole season that also includes much more famous fare from The Music Man to Grease is having its taste challenged and experience expanded in ways it may not expect. And it was thrilling to sit in a very full, very attentive house and feeling them becoming quietly overwhelmed, as I was, all over again.
It was also tremendous to see a quietly stunning production, based on Rachel Kavanaugh’s Chichester original and using Peter McKintosh’s original designs, so meticulously and feelingly performed by a cast led by Will Reynolds, a name new to me but a classically handsome leading man, and Alexandra Silber, whose progress I’ve been following for a while now. Born in LA and raised in Detroit, Silber came to the UK to train at Glasgow’s Royal Scottish Academy, and subsequently had leading roles in the West End in The Woman in White and revivals of Fiddler on the Roof and Carousel. Now she’s on her home territory again, and it’s a pleasure to see (and especially hear) her lending a beautiful physical and vocal grace to this haunting story of a life cut short.
From Goodall to Guettel is another massive leap, but they share something unique: they have their own, highly distinctive, musical voices. It also confirms the truth of Goodall’s statement quoted earlier about the importance of being (true to) yourself.
For Guettel, that’s involved a particularly tortured personal journey. In a 2003 interview in the New York Times Sunday magazine supplement, during the Seattle try-out of The Light in the Piazza, he spoke feelingly about wrestling with the burden of expectations: “In my family, to be good is to fail. To be very good is to fail. To only do three really good things is to fail. The only thing not a failure is to be great. And that is tiring.”
He also spoke of the challenge of achieving success in writing: “There is a nexus of three things that makes a song reach into the world. The writer’s craft is one; his soul is another. And the third is the thing that no one has control over: the times. Grandpa was in the right place at the right time. He thought about the right things, even if he wasn’t the most enlightened person personally. And he had perfect control of his technique.” He cites ‘Do-Re-Mi’ and says it “will never be forgotten. And I have to believe it is possible to write songs today that will be as universally comprehensible in our time as those songs were in theirs.”
As Jesse Green writes, that’s “another inherited burden.” Yet he adds that Guettel also told him about a dream he once had about his grandfather: ‘I was walking him to an elevator. I asked him if I was any good. He said, rather kindly, ‘You have your own voice,’ and the elevator doors closed.”
All of that is true. He’s also found it in spite of wrestling with some very big demons, including alcohol and drug addiction: he said in 2003, “I’ve lost a good 20 percent of my singing ability by frying my voice with alcohol and cigarettes and pot. But the big thing I’ve lost is time — I think, conservatively, 10 years of writing, because it’s 16 years since I got out of school, and I was gainfully employed for only six of them. Which actually makes me fairly quick as a writer, contrary to my image.”
But this week in London, nearly a decade after that interview took place, he’s looking fighting fit and is maturely affable company. Though he’s not had another new musical produced since then, either, he also offered a sneak preview of a song from a new one he is writing now, based on the book “Days of Wine and Roses”, that he’s working on with playwright and screenwriter John Logan. I can’t wait to see it. But meanwhile, anyone who cares about musical theatre at all should head to the Hippodrome: as I said in my review for The Stage yesterday, this is “one of the essential musical theatre nights of the year.”